The Future Of Innovation Depends On Our Cultural Intelligence

Dr Elisabeth Plum

We need cultural intelligent leadership of innovation. The future of innovation looks bright if we succeed to develop our cultural intelligence so we can optimize the creative collaboration between people who think and act differently.

Groups who are innovative consist of people from different backgrounds that allow different knowledge and perspectives meet and be confronted to create something new. Unexpected questions and disagreements within a group can spark off the questioning of usual thinking and practice and lead to innovative ideas. But differences within a group do not automatically lead to new thinking. Whether they do depends heavily on how group members experience and handle the cultural complexity in the group.


Our cultural backgrounds influence the way we think and act and the way we interpret each other's contributions and we don’t only have one cultural background. We all have a multiple cultural identity consisting of our nationality, gender, profession/education, age and organizational function (R&D, technical service, HR, marketing and sales) and all of these differences can be sources of new ideas.

If an innovative group chooses the ‘nice and easy’ way by seeking harmony in their group relations and level out their differences, this will destroy their creative potential. The homogeneity of the innovative group needs to be continuously confronted and stimulated. But at the same time we know that people need trustful relations. It’s a well-known fact in psychological theory that we need to feel heard, listen to and understood by other people in order to be able to unfold our full professional and personal capacity. If we don’t find these conditions we tend to defend our own unique points of views and nobody really listen to each other.

Leading an innovative group thus requires finding ways of balancing acknowledgement and use of the differences with building a trustful common ground, and the new concept cultural intelligence (CI) can be an important competence in innovation management.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to create a fruitful collaboration in situations where cultural differences play a role. CI consists of three interdependent dimensions focusing on respectively the emotional, the cognitive and the practical dimensions of cross cultural encounters.

Members of an innovative group need to pay attention to the various professional and personal competences that they self and others bring into the situation and they need to develop tools that invite to constructive confrontations between their different knowledge and points of view. But what is often underestimated or avoided are the irrational end emotional dimensions of the encounters in the homogeneous group. This dimension is the 'touch paper' - the thing that changes fuel into fire and contains both the creative potential and the 'danger'; the positive driving forces and the stumbling blocks that can destroy or enliven the contact.

Cultural Intelligence gives us a framework and a language to understand and capitalise on the differences in the innovative groups rather than tolerate or ignore the potentially creative friction caused by difference.

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Article © 2009 Dr Elisabeth Plum. All rights reserved.

about the author...

Dr Elisabeth Plum

Dr Elisabeth Plum

affiliation:   Plum & Co Aps

position:  Director

country:  Denmark

area of interest:  Innovation management (or rather: Leadership of innovative processes) + cultural intelligence

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Dr Elisabeth Plum

Cultural Intelligence: The Art of Leading Cultural Complexity

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